Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Unclear Groundless Gospel

    The glorious gospel is clear, not confusing. In contrast to this, the groundless gospel of the non-buried and never-seen savior is unclear and quite confusing! Consider for a moment that if the historical facts of Christ's burial and resurrection appearances are not absolutely essential for someone to know about and believe in order to go to heaven as Tom Stegall of Duluth Bible Church asserts, then their presence in the gospel message simply confuses the issues. Groundless gospel advocates admit to preaching the maximum consisting at least of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, but require something less than this to be believed. Stegall acknowledges that "it is quite common for Christians to reference 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and then state that the gospel is the message that 'Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.'...since the burial happens to fall in-between these two pillars [i.e. Christ's death and resurrection], it gets included each time this passage is quoted...I myself routinely quote it this way".1 Notice here that although Stegall only claims to be preaching "the gospel," in reality he believes he's preaching more than the gospel! This simply highlights the incongruity inherent in the groundless gospel because Stegall is including supposedly non-saving truth (i.e. Christ's burial) in his saving message. But Dennis Rokser correctly and somewhat incongruently points out "that THERE IS NO INCONGRUITY BETWEEN THE GOSPEL that was PREACHED by Paul and THE GOSPEL which was BELIEVED by the Corinthians! There was no MAXIMUM preached and MINIMUM believed!"2 Stegall's new mini-gospel is truly an issue of incongruity that requires either semantic gymnastics or a lack of personal integrity to maintain.
     Obviously the apostle Paul is not guilty of confusing the gospel message. In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul writes: "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, - and not with clever speech, so that the cross of Christ would not become useless (1 Cor. 1:17, NET, italics added). In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul affirms that "we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2, NIV, italics added). If Paul is not guilty of distorting and confusing the issues involved in eternal salvation, who is guilty of confusing the gospel message? In answer to this question consider how a pro-groundless pastor named Billy might witness to a Gnostic named Mike. Interestingly enough, Pastor Billy is the same Billy whom Stegall describes in his book as the young boy who doubted that Jesus was buried in a tomb for three days and that He appeared to His disciples after His resurrection.3 However, Billy is not a seven year old boy anymore. He went on to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth and is now pastor of a small  fundamentalist church.

Gnostic Mike: I was just reading about the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 and had some questions. I was wondering if you could help me out?

Pastor Billy: I'm sure I can help. What are your questions?

Gnostic Mike: It seems clear that Paul delivers his gospel in a four part formula, right?

Pastor Billy: Well, there are four parts but only two are really the gospel and essential to believe.

Gnostic Mike: Really? I'm glad you're explaining this to me because I didn't get that from reading the text. Paul uses the same grammatical structure to introduce each of the four verbs in verses 3b-5.

Pastor Billy: Yes of course, but Christ's burial and post-resurrection appearances are only proofs, you don't really have to believe them.

Gnostic Mike: I can see how they might be proofs of his death and resurrection, but why don't you have to believe them? After all, isn't Christ's resurrection a proof that He is God (cf. Acts 17:31; Rom. 1:4)? You still have to believe in Christ's resurrection, right?

Pastor Billy: Yes of course. But Christ's burial and post-resurrection appearances are not saving events.

Gnostic Mike: Really? Didn't Paul include them in the words of salvation in his preaching in Acts 13:26-41? I understand that only Christ's death paid the full penalty for sin, but Christ's burial and appearances are included in the gospel. Isn't the gospel "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16)?

Pastor Billy: Well you see, the double occurrence of the phrase "according to the Scriptures" in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 marks out the essentials of the gospel.

Gnostic Mike: Are you saying that Christ's burial and appearances aren't according to the Scriptures? 

Pastor Billy: Ummm. 

Gnostic Mike: And according to the Scriptures wasn't Christ's resurrection from the dead a resurrection from the grave (Isa. 53:9-10; Acts 13:29-30; 1 Cor. 15:4)? 

Pastor Billy: Hmmm.

Gnostic Mike: Wouldn't Paul be guilty of garbling the gospel by including non-saving truths in the saving message?

Pastor Billy: Actually, we just leave them out when we share the gospel so that clears things up.

Gnostic Mike: But Paul makes it clear that Christ's burial and appearances are included in the content of his gospel.

Pastor Billy: It takes much time and study to really understand the gospel message.

Gnostic Mike: I'm trying to understand. You're saying the gospel declares that Christ died for our sins - what about the phrase "according to the Scriptures," does a person have to believe that?

Pastor Billy: Well that's a proof too.

Gnostic Mike: So I don't have to believe it?

Pastor Billy: You have to believe what it proves.

Gnostic Mike: This is kind of confusing.

Pastor Billy: I'm glad I'm here to explain it to you.

Gnostic Mike: So I have to believe that Christ died for my sins but I don't have to believe that it was "according to the Scriptures" because that's just a proof. What if I believe Christ is a spirit?

Pastor Billy: Oh no, you have to believe Christ is human.

Gnostic Mike: Don't the facts of Christ's burial and appearances highlight His humanity? I mean, who ever heard of a spirit being buried?

Pastor Billy: Yes of course, but you don't have to believe them, you just have to believe Christ is human.

Gnostic Mike: But how will I believe Christ is human if I don't believe His body was buried or that He appeared to anyone?

Pastor Billy: Well, His death sets forth His humanity.

Gnostic Mike: But I'm a Gnostic. I believe Christ's death was only spiritual, not physical. And in the resurrection Christ's spirit was raised up, not His body. Immortality is conceived as escape from the body. I don't get it, you want me to believe Christ is human but you have removed His burial and resurrection appearances from the gospel. It doesn't make sense.

Pastor Billy: Here, I have some sermon tapes for you, why don't you listen to these.

Gnostic Mike: Thanks. I'm glad you're here to walk me through this. Otherwise I don't think I'd understand what you're saying. So let me see if I got it so far. I have to believe that Christ died for my sins, I don't have to believe the phrase "according to the Scriptures" because it's just a proof - although I can't believe it was according to some other holy book. And I don't have to believe that Christ was buried, but I have to believe He is human. How am I doing so far?

Pastor Billy: I think you're getting it.

Gnostic Mike: I hope I can remember all this! So the next part of the gospel I have to believe is that Christ was raised on the third day, right?

Pastor Billy: Well, we only require that you believe Christ rose from the dead.

Gnostic Mike: So if I believe Christ rose from the grave that's enough?

Pastor Billy: Oh no, you don't need to believe that Christ rose from the grave because that adds in His burial, you only need to believe that He rose from the dead.

Gnostic Mike: So all those people who believe Christ rose from the grave are adding to the gospel?

Pastor Billy: Well we try not to say that, they just don't understand the simplicity of the gospel message!

Gnostic Mike: It sounds kind of complicated to me.

Pastor Billy: Maybe you'd like to start coming to my church? I'm sure it would help clarify things for you.

Gnostic Mike: Are you saying I need your church to have it all make sense? That sounds kind of cultish.

Pastor Billy: I don't know why people always accuse us of being cultish...although we are the only doctrinally sound church in the city. But first things first. The important thing is that you get saved by believing my groundless gospel.

Gnostic Mike: That's what I'm trying to understand...so where were we? You were saying I have to believe Christ rose from the dead but not that He rose from the grave because that adds in His burial. So do I have to believe Christ rose from the dead on the third day? I mean, it says His resurrection on the third day is "according to the Scriptures," right?

Pastor Billy: Technically it does say that, but there are many passages throughout the New Testament which never mention the third day. We find that when a truth is mentioned frequently enough in the Bible it actually overrides another truth that's not mentioned quite as frequently. We like to tell people that an emphasis of one truth automatically means the exclusion of a related truth.

Gnostic Mike: I don't follow you on that one. But shouldn't this passage in 1 Corinthians 15 be considered "of first importance" (1 Cor. 15:3)? I mean, shouldn't we understand 1 Corinthians 15 in its own context and then those other gospel passages in light of the most important one?

Pastor Billy: Don't take everything so literally. After all, 1 Corinthians 15 is only one passage so it can't really be considered that important. There are many other verses throughout the New Testament that never reference a third day resurrection.

Gnostic Mike: So if I understand you correctly you're saying that even though Christ's resurrection on the third day is said to be "according to the Scriptures," I only have to believe He rose from the dead but not that it was "on the third day," right?

Pastor Billy: Now you're getting it!

Gnostic Mike: Actually, the gospel didn't seem confusing until you started explaining it to me!

Pastor Billy: That's because you're not saved. Often God uses human instruments like myself to explain these deep truths of the gospel.

Gnostic Mike: I don't know what I would do without you pastor. I sure wouldn't be able to understand the gospel simply from reading my Bible!

Pastor Billy: But once you understand it's so simple! We can't let the textual nuances of 1 Corinthians 15 override our carefully engineered system of theology, which of course is based on a synthesis of arbitrarily selected Scriptures fitting an unspecified numerical profile and the conversion experiences of many Christians in the world today.

Gnostic Mike: It sounds like I have a lot to learn! So you don't mind if I review all this one more time? I just want to make sure I'm getting this.

Pastor Billy: Sure but I don't have much time. I'm writing another book explaining the gospel.

Gnostic Mike: Okay...I'll try to make it quick. So you're saying I have to believe that Christ died for my sins - but now here I have another question. If Christ's resurrection on the third day is said to be "according to the Scriptures" but I don't have to believe that part about "the third day", why can't I simply believe that Christ died? I mean, I don't really have to believe the "for my sins" part, do I? I can just cut that out too, right?

Pastor Billy: The gospel isn't always consistent or clear like it may seem at first glance. You don't have to believe that Christ rose "on the third day"4 but you do have to believe that He died "for our sins". I know it sounds complicated but this is only the first time someone like myself has explained it to you.

Gnostic Mike: Yeah, I think I understand. It's still confusing me a bit though.

Pastor Billy: You're moving in the right direction. We can't take the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 so literally. Such an interpretation is too rigid and wooden. I mean honestly, who ever preaches that Christ "appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor. 15:5)?!

Gnostic Mike: But didn't Paul preach it (1 Cor. 15:1)?

Pastor Billy: Well, Paul may have preached it, but only to the Corinthians in reference to the specific issues at that church.

Gnostic Mike: But doesn't Paul say that all the other apostles preached the same gospel message (1 Cor. 15:11)?

Pastor Billy: Let's not squabble over details. You'll just have to read my book. Actually, I carry extra copies of it with me for times like these. Here, why don't you take one?

Gnostic Mike: Actually I was wondering if I could just get a Bible? Mine's falling apart.

Pastor Billy: Oh, uh, I have one back at the church if you visit on Sunday. But let's not get sidetracked. Does what I've been explaining to you make sense?

Gnostic Mike: Well, not really. I'll have to go home and listen to your sermon tapes and look over your book. Your gospel is confusing me a bit.

Pastor Billy: Call me if you have any more questions. God's Word isn't always as clear as it seems. But once you understand it's so simple!

     This story serves to illustrate the real tragedy of the groundless gospel. We simply cannot improve on the gospel, but we can detract from it by clouding it's clarity with human viewpoint and distorting it's message with reductionist reasoning. This is a serious error when it comes to evangelism because the unsaved have no grid other than their darkened minds to interpret our message of life. Let's encourage one another to proclaim the gospel clearly so that it can truly be dynamite for Christ! "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power [dynamite] of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes"! (Romans 1:16, NIV)


ENDNOTES:

1 Tom Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, 559.

2 Dennis Rokser, "The Issue of Incongruity - Actual or Artificial? Pt. 2," In Defense of the Gospel blog, http://indefenseofthegospel.blogspot.com/2008/05/issue-of-incongruity-actual-or_08.html (accessed December 20, 2009), emphasis his.

3 Tom Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, 561-562. 

4  In Stegall's list of what he believes to be the five "essential, defining elements of the Gospel," any mention of "the third day" (1 Cor. 15:4) is noticeably absent. (Stegall, THE TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 1," The Grace Family Journal [Spring 2007]: 9.) Far from being an accidental oversight, this omission is entirely purposeful. In his new book Stegall makes it clear that the reference to the third day is not, in his opinion, an essential point of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. (Stegall, The Gospel Of The Christ, 559.) In contrast to Stegall's partial gospel, Everett F. Harrison highlights the Biblical truth when he writes: "This much is clear from the whole discussion, that Jesus, both in His predications [cf. Jn. 2:19; Matt. 12:38-41, etc.], and in His teaching following the resurrection [Lk. 24:46-48], laid great stress upon the time element, and the early church sought to impress the same thing in its witness (Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4)." (Everett F. Harrison, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Ed., Systematic Theology, 8 Vols. 5:241.) William Lane Craig concludes: "the 'third day' motif [was] prominent in the earliest Christian preaching, as it is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5." (William Lane Craig, Jesus Under Fire, 150.) It is clear that Stegall's reductionist reasonings are flawed even according to his own standards because although the mention of "the third day" in 1 Corinthians 15:4 is said to be "according to the Scriptures" - a phrase which supposedly deciphers the essential elements of the partial gospel - Stegall still omits the third day time element from his gospel! Ironically, Stegall's own words bear witness against him when he writes: "This is a transparent example of doctrinally-driven exegesis, of doctrine being imposed upon Scripture rather than derived from Scripture." (Tom Stegall, THE TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 3," The Grace Family Journal [Fall 2007]: 4-5.)

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